How Nele Van Hout Grew Her Japan Travel Blog to $5k/Month Using SEO and a Facebook Group

How Nele Van Hout Grew Her Japan Travel Blog to $5k/Month Using SEO and a Facebook Group

Nele van Hout started a lifestyle blog when she was at university, but it wasn’t until she celebrated her graduation with a trip to Japan that things really started to take shape.

As she began writing about her travels there on her blog, The Navigatio, her traffic started to grow. A smart strategy during the pandemic led her traffic to explode once Japan opened its borders to tourists again.

Now she’s earning $5k per month from ads and affiliate marketing and she’s built up a thriving Facebook group.

Keep reading to find out:

  • What her blog was originally about
  • Why she started writing about Japan
  • What she did once the pandemic started
  • What happened when the pandemic ended
  • Where her income comes from
  • Her top marketing strategy
  • How she uses her Facebook group
  • Her keyword research strategies
  • Her content creation process
  • How she grows her email list
  • Her favorite resources and tools
  • Her biggest challenge
  • Her greatest accomplishment
  • Her main mistake
  • Her advice for other entrepreneurs

Meet Nele van Hout

Hi! I’m Nele (pronounced as Nay-la), a 28-year-old travel blogger. 

I was born in the Netherlands and moved to the UK when I was 18 to study English and Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. 

During my second year, I started a lifestyle/travel blog where I’d share my experience living abroad. And this has somehow grown into a business that earns me over $5k per month!

Having been interested in Japan since I was a child (probably because I watched way too much Pokémon), I treated myself to a trip there right after graduating. 

It exceeded my already unreasonably high expectations, making it one of my favorite things to write about for the blog. Seeing that the articles were received well by readers and Google, it only made sense to keep writing about Japan.

Even though I bought an apartment in Manchester with my fiancé last year, we frequently travel to Japan to explore more of this amazing country and create new content. Our next trip will be spread across three months in early 2024 – I already can’t wait!

Why She Created Her Website

I started The Navigatio during my second year at university. I was studying English and creative writing and I wanted to make something that would help me stand out when I’d be applying for graduate jobs the year after.

I’d been blogging since I was 14, on countless free WordPress sites, sharing my favorite nail polishes and pictures of trips I’d taken with my family, but I wanted this website to be a bit more professional. However, I never expected it to turn into what it is today!

The Navigatio started as a lifestyle/travel site. I was sharing things about living abroad for my university degree, the struggles of being bilingual, my favorite coffee spots in Manchester, etc. 

After graduating, I took my first trip to Japan, which was a dream come true, and writing about it afterward was one of my favorite things to do.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that it was the travel articles I enjoyed writing most, and for some reason, some of them started to get views from Google. As someone who had never heard of SEO and was solely promoting the site on Facebook to friends and family, this was very exciting.

To be honest, I never expected this hobby to turn into a profitable business. I had no idea this was even a possibility when I started the website in 2017, it was purely a hobby and a portfolio piece to add to my CV. 

But seeing some success on Google, I started to read everything I could find about SEO online. 

I’d watch YouTube tutorials, join online seminars, and read blog posts. Doing all of this even landed me my first graduate job as an SEO and marketing assistant at a start-up in Manchester. I quit this job after six months to focus on The Navigatio and freelance full-time.

The pandemic started not too long after I left my full-time job, which obviously impacted my travel site quite a bit. But luckily, I had some freelance work to fall back on while working on The Navigatio whenever I had a spare second. 

I’m so glad I stuck it out because as soon as Japan reopened its borders, my website traffic exploded. 

I’d been working so hard over the pandemic to get even more guides about Japan online and update all my existing ones. 

Seeing how well the Japan articles were received and how much my own passion lies there, it only made sense to start focussing even more on Japan.

How Much She’s Earning

The website steadily earns around $5,000 per month with ads and affiliate income. There are some months that are even more profitable. In fact, I hit $9,950 in August—so close to $10K!—because of a collaboration I did with a brand and a big (unexpected) affiliate payout.

Mediavine helps massively with this. I finally got accepted in November 2022, when my website hit 50,000 sessions. Since then, it’s grown to around 140,000 monthly sessions. 

While my RPMs aren’t the highest due to the large part of my audience not being in the US, it still makes up for around 45% of my website’s income. 

Many tourists in Japan find my guides online before taking a day trip, for example, and with an RPM of around $2-$3, Japanese traffic isn’t very desirable.

The remainder in a typical month (without brand partnerships or unexpected payouts) comes from affiliate marketing. Hotels and accommodation are by far the biggest earners here, as the majority of people who book a hotel through my links book their entire trip in one go.

Other than that, the Japan Rail Pass (a train pass for tourists to make unlimited usage of the Japan Rail Lines) is a great affiliate income for my site. Sadly, the prices of the pass are increasing by 70% by the end of this year, so I’m not sure if I’ll be able to keep recommending it.

A quick overview would look something like this:

  • Mediavine ads: 45%
  • Hotel affiliate: 35%
  • JR Pass affiliate: 15%
  • Other affiliate income (passes/tours): 5%

Considering I started the blog in 2017 as an online journal, it’s taken me a while to get to this point. 

However, with the travel restrictions during the pandemic and my complete lack of SEO knowledge when I started the site, I’m very happy with how it all turned out! 

I definitely doubled down on the work during the pandemic because I was determined to make it work.

I work around 20 hours per week on The Navigatio, which doesn’t include planning our future Japan trips. Outside of the website, I still work as a freelance SEO editor for a student finance website, too.

During the pandemic, I was easily working 50-60 hours a week on the website and my freelancing. I had barely any boundaries when it came to work. 

Because it wasn’t earning me anything yet, I constantly felt like I had to work harder. Unsurprisingly, this took a toll on my mental and physical health. It’s forced me to set some rules to make sure I can happily work on my website without burning out.

I now almost never work on evenings or weekends anymore. And while I probably should spend a bit more time on The Navigatio (especially because I have so many ideas for it!), I have a much better work/life balance.

Nele’s Traffic Numbers

In August 2023, I hit just over 160,000 page views (140,000 sessions), which still feels surreal! The site has grown so much since Japan reopened its borders, and with the help of my two writers who are based in Japan, the growth isn’t slowing down.

Before Japan reopened for tourism in October 2022, I struggled to get 30,000 monthly sessions. I’d be over the moon whenever I’d reached the Booking.com $100 payment threshold. 

On top of the couple of hundred dollars per month I earned with my Monumetric ads, it was a welcomed bonus.

But the slow increase in traffic during the pandemic was understandable. Who would be searching for travel tips and information on a country that’s not letting tourists in? 

But the long-awaited opening caused a surge in tourism, and my website’s benefitting from that nicely.

I do expect tourism to slow down after the initial hype, but I’m confident it’ll remain a popular destination to travel, too; it’s got so much to offer. There’s a reason I keep returning to Japan myself!

Her Top Marketing Strategy

SEO is my main strategy. It’s what I specialized in during my short-lived full-time job after graduating, and it’s where I focused my freelance work, too. There is always something new to learn or try when it comes to SEO, so I try to stay on top of all the latest changes in the industry.

One thing that I’ve been working on for the last couple of years is growing a Facebook Community. During a coaching call in early 2022, an affiliate marketing coach recommended that I set up a group to reach a new audience (as people on Facebook don’t always use Google). It’s now at over 70,000 members!

It took a while to grow at the beginning, but once it gained a couple of thousand members, it started to show up in Facebook searches for Japan-related queries. Since then, it’s been growing organically through Facebook very quickly.

To start, I would promote the group in my newsletter and in the sidebar of my website. To grow it, I would reply to every single post and question posted in the group, as well as share tips and tricks every single day (often linked to one of my articles). 

Even now the group has gotten so much bigger, I still try to reply to as many posts as possible and schedule daily posts with information about Japan. 

While it takes up quite a bit of time every day, I truly believe this is a great way to grow my brand and authority on the subject. 

It’s also a great way to help individual people with their questions, which motivates me even more to make sure the information on my site is the best it can be!

Her Thoughts on SEO

SEO is incredibly important for the website, as around 75% of the traffic comes from Google. 

However, with the ongoing changes in the Google algorithm and the surge in AI, I’m hoping to diversify my traffic as much as possible moving forward. 

It’s tricky to just rely on Google for traffic, as one small change can have a huge impact on your income.

I’d like to focus a bit more on the social side of the business. The Facebook group is a great first step. Even though it currently only counts for around 6-7% of the traffic, I’m hoping to grow it in the next year or so, along with other channels.

Keyword Research

I usually have a pretty good idea of what kind of guides I’d like to add to the site. For example, if I’m working on extending our guides about a certain city, I go to KeySearch and find keywords that fit both my intent with the guide and that we can rank for. 

It’s been great having a couple of Japan-based writers on board, especially since they’re based in areas of Japan I’m not very familiar with yet. This way, I can grow the database for the website with expert guides, plus, it’s a whole new vein of keywords to tap into!

It’s the first time I hired someone, so the process was a bit scary! But after publishing an ad on LinkedIn and my website, I was really surprised to see over 150 people apply within a week! I honestly didn’t expect more than 10, if I was lucky.

It took some time to vet through all the applications, but I ended up paying 8 of the candidates for a test article. 

After that, it was pretty clear which ones fitted The Navigatio’s writing style and SEO skills necessary. It’s definitely been a learning curve, but it’s been great having such great and enthusiastic writers on board!

Link Building

To be honest, I’ve been slacking quite a bit in this department. I know that link building is an important part of growing a niche website, but it takes so much time and there simply aren’t enough hours in the day!

I have done the odd guest posts here and there for other websites, but they take way too much time to put together. I’d rather be writing a new guide for my own site.

Nele’s Content Creation Process

I’m still finding my feet with the content process now I’ve got two writers helping me out. There is definitely a learning curve when it comes to outsourcing, but it’s been a great way of getting more quality content live.

The way I’ve currently got it set up works pretty well. 

Myself and my two writers pick 1-2 articles to write at the start of the month on our Trello board. 

I’ve already done keyword research for them and written a brief to show a breakdown of what information I’d like to have in the guide. They then submit it by the end of the month, when I edit, proofread, fact-check, and upload it onto WordPress.

I’m publishing around 4-5 articles a month at the moment, but I’m also spending a lot of time updating older guides. This is taking way more time than writing new ones, as I’m learning more and more about Japan, so I want to make sure the guides reflect that.

Currently, there are 131 live articles on the website. About half of them are about Japan, and the remainder are about Europe and the US before I decided to niche down even further. I’m still figuring out what to do with them…

Her Email List

I started growing the mailing list by offering a free travel e-guide to Japan in exchange for someone’s email address. I’ve expanded it a bit further and use the Facebook group to gain even more subscribers, especially since the group is organically growing very quickly, it’s a great way to introduce members to the mailing list. 

It’s easily adding 1,000 new subscribers to the list every month.

I’ve got a few automatic emails set up that are sent out after people sign up to the list. It’s a selection of emails with information about Japan if you’re planning to travel there for the first time (which, I assume, are most people who’d sign up). 

It includes the best things to do, some itinerary suggestions, hotel recommendations, and other travel essentials.

It’s a great way for people to get to know me and my site a bit better, but it also sends traffic to the website and makes some affiliate sales here and there. I am planning to work this out even further in the future with a new e-guide as a sign-up freebie to hopefully increase conversions from the website.

Her Favorite Resources

A lot of free information is available online, but I highly recommend investing in a proper course. 

The moment I invested in The Blogging Fast Lane, I was way more motivated because I parted with such a big chunk of money. I bought the course at the start of the pandemic when I struggled to pay my rent, and it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.

The course helped me immensely. Even though I have an SEO background, the source focuses so heavily on growing a niche site/blog, that it was very easy to adjust some of my strategies. 

With a heavy focus on affiliate marketing, I learned a lot of completely new things too. Buying that course is by far the best investment I’ve made in my website.

I knew the only way I could make this money back was by following the course religiously, so I put in my everything to make The Navigatio work.

Twitter is another goldmine of information. There are so many great accounts sharing the latest SEO news, tips & tricks, and ideas for you to try out. 

SEO evolves constantly, so it’s important to stay up to date with what’s happening in the industry. You’re always making changes and adjusting your strategy to make sure it works well for your site.

Her Go-To Tools

Trello has been a game changer for my organization. 

After hiring two freelance writers, I knew I had to step up my game a little to make sure they were easily able to see their tasks. Not only does it help my writers, it also gives me a much clearer overview of what articles need updating and it gives me a place to write down ideas and notes in one place.

For SEO, KeySearch is my holy grail. It’s so affordable and it gives you all the necessary information to do your keyword research. 

And Lightroom for editing photos. My saved presets on it save me so much time.

Her Biggest Challenge

Staying motivated during the pandemic was for sure the hardest thing. I convinced myself that as soon as Japan would reopen its borders, I’d be okay. I’d get onto Mediavine and all of the hard work I’d been putting in over the years would finally pay off. 

But I had no way of knowing that’s what would actually happen. 

Luckily, I was right, and it skyrocketed the business even further than I could’ve hoped for. But there was no guarantee, especially since Japan was one of the last countries to reopen for tourists, the waiting game was excruciating.

I can’t even remember the number of times I considered applying for a full-time job again or asking my freelance clients for a full-time position. 

I absolutely love blogging, but it’s hard to stay motivated when you’re struggling to pay your rent after working 50-60 hours that week.

Her Greatest Accomplishment

Being able to help so many people plan their dream trips has been incredible. Especially since I can connect with people on a much more personal level in the Facebook group, I can really see the impact the website is making. 

I get emails and messages on social media from people almost every day who follow the itineraries and thank me for helping them have the best trip of their lives. It makes me even more motivated to make sure the guides are up-to-date and include the best information possible.

What She Wishes She Knew When She Started

I think most niche site owners will say a similar thing: I wish I knew more about SEO when I started because it would’ve helped me grow a lot quicker. However, it’s been a really fascinating journey growing the site from a hobby to what it is today. 

If I’d known it would turn into a website about Japan, I’d probably picked a different name for it too. But “The Navigatio” has grown on me quite a bit, even though its focus changed so much over the years.

Her Main Mistake

My biggest mistake is saying “yes” to too many things and wanting to do too many things. 

Especially during the pandemic when income was almost non-existent, I accepted some paid collaborations that didn’t really align with the brand. 

In a similar fashion, I started targeting keywords that were easy wins but were in no way related to my website (“smile Instagram captions” for example). 

Also, I had so many different destinations on my site. I know some bloggers who have had fantastic success with it, so it definitely can work. 

But for me, I was spreading myself way too thin, and slowly niching down to focus more on one destination has helped me to take a lot of pressure off.

Her Advice for Other Entrepreneurs

Remember that building an online business is a marathon, not a sprint. 

It takes a while before things start to fall into place, but when they do, it’s like magic. You have to remember the end goal, even when you’ve been chipping away at it for a couple of years and you’re not seeing the returns yet.

And you’ll have to make some scary decisions. But from all the scary choices and moves I’ve made, they all helped me scale my business even further. 

From buying the blogging course I really couldn’t afford at the time to finally hiring other writers, it was terrifying to invest in them, but looking back, these were the choices that made the website better than ever.

Finding the right people to motivate you is also incredibly important. I’m very lucky to have some amazing friends (both in the blogging industry and outside of it) who have supported and motivated me through the pandemic and truly celebrate my successes with me!

Tran Danh

Tran Danh

I'm Tran Danh, the author behind Smart Passive Income (SPI), a blog dedicated to online business and entrepreneurship. I started this blog in 2008, following in the footsteps of Pat Flynn, the founder. Being one of the leading business blogs globally, SPI attracts over 2 million readers each month. Through my content, I aim to assist individuals in generating passive income from various online sources. Join me on this transformative journey as we delve into the world of online business and uncover the strategies and tactics that have led to tremendous success for myself and countless others.

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